Are You Guilty of This Common Apologetic Error?


Christian apologists often respond to the Problem of Evil by pointing out that atheism has its own problem of evil. There’s a good case to be made here. The problem is, frequently I hear Christian apologists making a bad one instead. So this is a bit of internal correction I want to offer my friends on a common apologetic error

The correct version of atheistic problem of evil is one that says atheism has no standard with which to judge anything as right or wrong. I’ll explain that further in a moment. The error comes when one says, “The atheist cannot charge God with evil, because atheism provides no standard from which to charge him with wrongdoing.” I’ll come back to that, too, in another moment.

Briefly on the Naturalistic Problem of Evil

When I speak of atheism, I mean the naturalistic/materialistic version, the worldview that says nothing exists but matter and energy, interacting according to regularities we call “laws of nature.” (Some atheists say abstract objects like numbers may exist, too, but that gets complicated and it’s not necessary for these purposes.)

Now, it’s impossible for mere matter and energy to make anything morally right or morally wrong. It can only make what is, not what should be or shouldn’t be; and in fact it cannot help but make what is, for it’s driven by physical necessity (natural law). Alexander Pope said, “Whatever is, is right.” That was bad thinking on his part, but I’ll borrow it anyway. Naturalism says, “Whatever is, is.”

So naturalism has a problem of evil: There’s no way to call anything wrong or right. Not anything at all, ever. If you want to call anything evil at all — child molestation, slavery, sex trafficking, racism, opioid dealing, whatever — naturalism can only get you as far as saying you don’t prefer it. Or your culture doesn’t prefer it, or it isn’t conducive to human flourishing. Either way, it can’t get you as far as saying any of that is either right or wrong.

How Christian Apologists Sometimes Get the Objection Wrong

That’s hardly a full defense of the naturalistic problem of evil, but it’s a start, anyway; and I need to move on to the mistake apologists often make. I heard it at a conference a couple weeks ago, and I saw it again on Facebook just now. The mistake happens when we jump from, “Atheism has no basis for judging anything good or evil,” to, “Therefore atheists can’t judge God as being wrong.”

Take, for example, the charge that God committed genocide in the Bible. That’s approximately the topic I saw under discussion on Facebook moments ago. Someone wrote, “The question is flawed if coming from an atheist because they are using a moral standard they cannot establish.” That objection is flawed.

Here’s why. The objection wasn’t, “God is evil on my terms, therefore there is no God.” The objection was more like, “God is evil on God’s own terms, as supposedly revealed in the Bible; therefore the Bible’s conception of God is hopelessly self-contradictory and it’s silly to try to believe in him.”

If the objector were really saying, “God is evil on my terms, therefore there is no God,” then the answer would be easy: If there’s a God, his terms rule, not yours. If your terms actually did rule — if they had enough going for them to decide the question — then there couldn’t be any God. So you can’t judge God on your own terms. Period. Either God judges you, or there is no God.

We Need To Answer Based on Our Worldview, Not Atheism’s

But if the objector is saying, “God is evil based on his own revealed moral standards,” we can’t brush that one aside so easily. We have to show that the inconsistency isn’t real. In the case of genocide, for example, we need to show that God didn’t violate his own standards.

I have an example of that kind of explanation in a series starting here. Otherwise I can’t turn this post into an article defending God against various claims of evildoing. My purpose here is met if I can show some apologists that we need to be more careful with how we handle the alleged problem of God’s wrongdoing.

We’ve got to be sure we’re answering the real question. The atheist problem of evil is a problem within atheism’s worldview. The problem of God’s alleged evil, in contrast, arises from within the theistic worldview. To import an atheistic ethical perspective into the latter problem is to commit the taxicab fallacy. We need to explain our worldview’s potential problems from within our own worldview.

15 Responses

  1. Jenna Black says:


    I’d like to hear more about the “taxicab fallacy.” This is a new one for me but it resonates because of your “from a worldview” view of argumentation for apologists.

    Thanks for your insights. God bless your ministry.


  2. Well, it’s also an error for apologists to say “It’s impossible for mere matter and energy to make anything morally right or morally wrong.” The reason I say this is an error is because the atheist will summarily dismiss you as ignorant of their viewpoint. It will be the end of the discussion, and you’ll have no chance to persuade the atheist after that.

    A successful apologist needs to at least acknowledge that atheists have explanations for how morality can arise from mere matter and energy. It would be good to familiarize yourself with these atheistic points before stumbling into a debate.

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    It’s also an error to think that when I said that I should have made it a full and complete statement, addressing all possible objections. Read it again. I said, “That’s hardly a full defense of the naturalistic problem of evil, but it’s a start, anyway.”

    Was that not clear enough?

    What you’re asking for wasn’t the point of this blog post. I had something else to focus on.

    I agree it’s good to familiarize oneself with atheistic points before entering into a debate. I commend that advice to all apologists. I am very aware of atheistic objections to that position, and I think I know how to respond to them quite successfully.

    But I hope you realize that this wasn’t intended for the purpose of entering into that debate this time, “stumbling” or otherwise.

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    The problem with saying anything is that someone is bound to object that you didn’t say everything.

  5. BillT says:

    A successful apologist needs to at least acknowledge that atheists have explanations for how morality can arise from mere matter and energy. .

    Shouldn’t this really read “A successful apologist needs to at least acknowledge that atheists have no explanations for how morality can arise from mere matter and energy.” Because we’ve seen on this blog atheists claim they can do this so often it would be impossible to count. I’ve yet to see anything that even resembles morality arising from mere matter and energy. It always boils down to “it’s morality because I say it is” or “it’s morality because it’s good for society” or “it’s close enough to morality that it doesn’t matter.” If that’s “how morality can arise from mere matter and energy” then we’re all good.

    (And BTW John, no one expects you’ll actually respond to the challenges to your evidence free assertions. We’ve all learned that would be quite unlike you.)

  6. Tom Gilson says:

    Oh, they have explanations. Just not any successful ones.

  7. Like BillT, many theists “have yet to see anything” because they have their eyes shut. There is a rich discussion going on between theists and atheists, and you can participate, but only if you want to.

    Anyway, I appreciate Tom’s pointing out that there are really two different arguments from evil that atheists make:

    a) God is evil on “my” terms.
    b) God is evil on God’s own terms.

    I think atheists are making both arguments. As Tom said, the second type of argument is a matter of Biblical or theological interpretation. My protest was just that you can’t “brush aside so easily” the first type of atheist argument.

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    I wouldn’t brush either of them aside, unless you call a quick, easy, and logically sound rebuttal “brushing aside.” For I haven’t seen any sound versions of the first argument. Maybe you have one, but I’d be surprised.

    The second argument actually does require some thoughtful reasoning, unlike every version of the first that I’ve encountered so far.

  9. Tom Gilson says:

    And what was this jab at BillT about, anyway? You changed the subject completely, you know; and he’s exactly right in saying that atheists have no explanation for how morality can arise from mere matter and energy. Of course he’s seen the discussions. He says so right there in the comment you’re ostensibly responding to. He knows there’s dialogue, he just doesn’t think that it produces actual explanations from the atheist side. That’s plain to see from what he wrote.

    So whose eyes are shut here?

  10. scbrownlhrm says:

    [A] God is evil on my terms — because Sinai.
    [B] God is evil on God’s own terms — because Sinai.

    [A] fails simply because of two (…well, there are more, but these will do…) reasons:

    First: On any Non-Theism all sentences are, finally, defined by reality’s irreducible substrate, namely Irreducible Indifference (…or I.I…).

    Second: No matter how many layers of I.I. one stacks up and spans across the eons, one is left with reality’s irreducible substrate, namely I.I.

    [B] fails for three (…well, more, but these will do…) reasons:

    First: Scripture defines all things Edenic as less than God’s Eternal Ideal for Mankind forever (…which awaited all things Adamic in and by a Door Who’s Name is Eternal Life, but which, in a Fall of some sort, all things Adamic are banned from…).

    Second: Scripture defines all things Sinai as a Casting-Out of all things Edenic — as the Ministry of Death, as that which is Far Less than that Far Better which is yet to come. In short: Privation — as in the Good minus Something — as in a deficiency of The Good.

    Third: The Cruciform Lens affirms those first two even as those first two affirm the Cruciform Lens as said Lens finds that all sentences are, finally, defined by reality’s irreducible substrate — namely Irreducible Self-Giving in and by the Trinitarian Life.

    Fourth: No matter the degree of the deficiency one stacks up and spans across the eons, one is left with reality’s irreducible substrate, namely the Trinitarian Life as Irreducible Self-Giving defines all sentences. In fact but for that metaphysical wellspring of all ontic-possibility there are no Moral Facts.

    There are no such reality’s as “ontological cul-de-sacs” and such a fiction is Non-Theism’s only hope for Moral Facts.

    Love, Reason, Reality, And The Golden Thread of Reciprocity via the content of has overlapping layers.

  11. scbrownlhrm says:


    There are no such reality’s realities as “ontological cul-de-sacs” and such a fiction is Non-Theism’s only hope for Moral Facts.

  12. We need to understand what the atheist is claiming here with greater precision, because that seems to be “A requirement for a satisfactory explanation of God is that He must be consistent with the proscriptions he lays upon humans. The God of the Bible (Yahweh) displays morality apparently inconsistent with what that god prescribes for humanity. Therefore either of two conditions is true (and perhaps both): either 1) no theistic god exists; or 2) Yahweh does not exist.”

    Now, right away, even before additional analysis, conclusion 1) comes across as a giant non-sequitur. The conclusion just does not follow, obviously. Even if Yahweh displays non-good behavior, that does not mean theistic gods are impossible or even improbable.

    In case 2), satisfying the second premise (Yahweh acts in ways inconsistent with his requirements for humanity) also does not mean Yahweh does not exist, but for only slightly less obvious reasons. In this case, the atheist needs to explain why he assesses the conclusion follows. In that, the failure of the argument becomes more apparent.

    As many Biblical theologians point out, Yahweh owns all life–it’s all in His hands, to do with as He wishes, for His purposes. He is perfectly free and still perfectly good to tell humans not to take human life (and the actual proscription is against taking human life without just cause and process), and then take life Himself.

    It’s as if I lent you my car and told you not to put gas in it, and then the very next night I put gas in it. No one would accuse me of immoral behavior, because it’s my car! And this is I think what you are talking about, what we should address when the atheist raises this charge, because the conclusion does not follow from the premises.

    So, the first premise is simply mistaken. There is no requirement for Yahweh, or any theistic God, to act within any proscription he levies upon humans, even if it were true that He has done so.

    So, as far as I can see, on this objection even within its own constructs, the ‘only’ problems are that the first premise is mistaken, and neither of the two conclusions follows even if both premises were true.

  13. scbrownlhrm says:

    @ Dennis Alwine,

    Well stated ~ Are you keeping both of the following “live” or should I link one as your main?

  14. Thank you for the kind comment. I am keeping only the wordpress site live. Working on fixing any old links as I complete the crossover to wordpress and until that is complete the blogspot site will stay up, though without new content.

  15. scbrownlhrm says:


    It’s tedious. Changing mine around so it’s a mess right now with half the links not active….. Painful but W.P. definitely provides helpful options.

    ~ Enjoyed your site ~